Aug. 16 (Bloomberg) — If Barack Obama’s campaign officials were happy over the weekend about Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, they’re ecstatic now.
The Obama camp is guarding against overconfidence and still betting the U.S. presidential race will be close. But aides traveling with Obama pointed with glee to headlines from Florida, Iowa and elsewhere that lash the Republican ticket to Ryan’s plan for deep cuts in Medicare, the nation’s most popular social program after Social Security.
Some Democrats now dare to wonder if Romney’s pick for vice president could even undermine Republican control of the House of Representatives. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said for months that the Democrats can take the House; no one believed her. Although it’s still a steep challenge, Ryan’s addition to the ticket makes the climb easier.
Almost every Republican in the House voted for the Ryan plan — twice. Last week, when Ryan was just the House Budget Committee chairman, it was difficult to make much of an issue of that. Voters didn’t know anything about Ryan or his plan. This week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is encouraging its candidates to wrap Ryan around their opponents’ necks.
The post-election era is also looking rosier to Democrats. At a minimum, an Obama victory in November would discredit the Ryan plan and strengthen the president’s hand in negotiations over the fate of the Bush tax cuts, which are due to expire at the end of this year.
Some Republicans lament that Ryan’s emergence makes it easier for the Obama campaign to keep the campaign focus away from jobs by shifting it to entitlements. Republican strategist Mike Murphy posted on Twitter that someone should do a Nexis search to see whether “economy” or “Medicare” appeared more often in the news media in the 72 hours after the Ryan announcement. His point was clear: Any day the country is talking about Medicare instead of unemployment is a good day for Democrats.
In Boone, Iowa, this week, I caught up with chief Obama strategist David Axelrod, who says he expected Romney to make the safest choice for vice president, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. (The Obama team didn’t think Romney would pick Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, another leading contender, because of Portman’s tenure as President George W. Bush’s budget director. Bush is so unpopular in the party that he won’t even attend the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, at the end of this month.)
Axelrod argues that Romney’s choice of Ryan was another example of Romney undermining his long-term prospects in order to maintain short-term viability, as he did in the primaries against Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. “In beating Perry, he hurt himself on immigration with Latinos,” Axelrod says. “In beating Santorum, he hurt himself with women. Now, going into the convention, he needs the base.”
Republicans spent tens of millions in recent months attacking the president with ads built around his own words: “The private sector is doing fine” and “You didn’t build that.” The polls didn’t move. Axelrod compares the effort to change voters’ views of Obama to the old Richard Pryor routine in which a wife catches her husband with another woman. Disputing reality, the husband protests: “Who are you going to believe — me or your lying eyes?”
By contrast, Obama’s shots at Romney have been so effective that Romney, in an interview with Chuck Todd of NBC News, called for an end to personal attacks. Axelrod found that hilarious given the barrage of super-PAC ads aimed at tearing down Obama.
Obama’s campaign, aided by supportive super-PACs, is also spending plenty on harshly negative ads. It’s axiomatic in politics that negative ads tarnish the attacker along with the target, albeit to a lesser degree. So far, Obama seems to be defying the axiom, despite Romney’s new charge that Obama is “disgracing the presidency.”
Democratic voters have been waiting three years for the president to throw some punches; they’re probably overjoyed to see his negative ads. Independents, meanwhile, have a pretty firm impression of Obama as a decent guy; that won’t be shaken by a few low blows from Obama’s side of the partisan divide.
As a result, Obama can fearlessly pound Romney and Ryan for promoting a plan to transform Medicare into a voucher system while slashing other programs for the middle class and poor.
Romney is fighting back, accusing Obama of cutting $716 billion from Medicare as part of his health-care overhaul. (That same message helped Republicans take the House in the 2010 midterm election.) But Obama’s Medicare savings are mostly in reduced hospital reimbursement rates and in cuts to providers in Medicare Advantage, a supplemental program for wealthier seniors. Contrary to a new Romney ad, Obamacare doesn’t touch a dime of basic benefits. Most of the other cuts slow the rate of increase in spending, helping to secure the program for another decade. As it happens, Ryan’s budget contains the same cuts, which makes the whole Republican line of attack a little dicey.
It’s possible that Romney can fuzz up the Medicare issues and pivot back to Obama’s failure on the economy. The 82 days until the election are an eternity in politics. But the selection of Ryan looks like it will make that effort harder, and life in Chicago just a little bit easier.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)